Evidence synthesis: Security sector reform and organisational capacity building

Lisa Denney & Craig Valters


This synthesis examines the extent to which capacity building interventions in security sector reform have led to improved outcomes in accountability, responsiveness and capacity to deliver among security institutions and agencies in low- and middle-income countries. It further explores the factors enabling or hindering these improvements and the relationship between organisational capacity building interventions and the longer-term outcomes of increased stability and reductions in outbreaks of conflict. The literature suggests capacity building is operationalised in a limited manner that tends to treat the problem as one of capacity deficit, rather than the result of a particular constellation of political incentives. The paper warns that its recommendations to remedy this are only helpful if addressing such knowledge gaps will lead to improved donor behaviour.

It is based on a database of 215 studies compiled after a rigorous search process and supplemented by studies recommended by five SSR experts. A total of 149 studies were found to be of moderate to high relevance and were drawn on in developing the findings. The literature included in the database relates explicitly to SSR and so important contributions in wider fields – such as anthropology, criminology and legal studies – are not drawn on here.

A number of findings that highlight the issues and tensions of organisational capacity building in SSR emerge:

  • Capacity building has a weak conceptual basis in the SSR literature.
  • Robust causal relationships between capacity building activities and outcomes are difficult to identify because they are rarely defined or disaggregated.  The reviewed literature strongly suggests a weak relationship between capacity building and improved security outcomes. Where positive outcomes are acknowledged, most papers reviewed put those in the context of limited change. It is often not clear whether the literature is claiming no improved capacity or no evidence of improved capacity.
  • There is a paucity of robust monitoring and evaluation (M&E) by donors to inform learning. Much M&E appears to simply fulfil reporting functions and demonstrate uncritical results.
  • The security outcomes under examination are at times in tension. This is especially the case with improved capacity to deliver security and improved accountability – where the former can come at the expense of the latter.
  • Capacity building is widely viewed in the literature as unsustainable, with a heavy reliance on international personnel and finance. However, there are no longitudinal studies that assess the long-term impact of capacity building interventions. A small body of literature highlights the challenge faced in these contexts: the need to act quickly to address pressing needs, versus the need to operate in ways that are locally-led, contextually relevant and sustainable.

More specific M&E to build the evidence base on what does and does not work is required, as is further research to explore the concepts of capacity and capacity building within SSR. This includes questions around whose capacity needs to be built, in what ways this is most effectively done, by who, at what level, for how long, etc. Pilot programming and more research could further explore how capacity building fits within wider programming approaches that attempt to tackle issues such as lack of incentives for change, political deprioritisation, and the politicisation of reform targets.


Denney, L. & Valters, C. (2015). Evidence Synthesis: Security Sector Reform and Organisational Capacity Building. London: Department for International Development.